After two months of persuasion, Muthulakshmi, the widow of Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, the sandalwood smuggler and bandit who was killed by the Tamil Nadu police in 2004, agrees to meet me in Chennai, where she has come to resolve some legal matters. We arrange to meet at 7 pm on the Marina Beach. I reach on time but there is no sign of her till 8 pm. I finally call on the cellphone number she had given me. Muthulakshmi says she is on her way in a bus, and will reach Marina in an hour. I ask her to get off the bus and take an auto-rickshaw, offering to pay the fare. A little later, a yellow auto-rickshaw stops behind my red Swift. A man in a white shirt gets off and asks me if I am who I have claimed to be on the phone. Identification done, Muthulakshmi, dressed in a chiffon sari, and her daughter step forward. The man in the white shirt is her lawyer. They are accompanied by another man in his mid-20s — Muthulakshmi’s sister’s son.
We sit in the Swift. Muthulakshmi says she has to catch a bus for Mettur, where she stays, in a little over an hour. I offer to drop her at the Koyambedu bus stand. On the way, over the 50-minute journey, she asks me to come to Mettur for a longer conversation. I accept her invitation.
In the weekend, I travel to Poteleri, a village around 450 km south of Chennai where Muthulakshmi stays. It is a small village of 50 to 60 houses. A small but neat cemented courtyard leads into the house. A pie-dog is tethered to a post next to the staircase which leads up to the terrace. The off-white terrace is huge. I am made to sit here, on a coir-string cot. Clothes have been left to dry on a string. The smell of biryani wafts in from the kitchen downstairs. The living room has a large framed picture of Veerappan. The dreaded bandit stares down at visitors, with his trademark moustache and a gun slung on his shoulder. The house, which Muthulakshmi has rented, is not far from the Satyamangalam forest which was where she lived with Veerappan. It stands next to a corn field, beyond which is the forest — dark, mysterious and forbidding.
Muthulakshmi is taciturn but she seems to have made her peace with life. Aged around 38 or 39, she looks calm; her demeanour does not betray her turbulent past which could well be made into a Bollywood potboiler, having every masala ingredient of romance, suspense, action and tragedy.
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Veerappan first saw Muthulakshmi sometime in 1989 when he’d gone to her village, Nerupur in the Dharmapuri district, to mediate a dispute between two brothers. (People here preferred to go to the bandit rather than the court for justice.) He saw Muthulakshmi fetching water from the Cauvery and fell in love with her. He was 29, she was 16. “He came to me and said, ‘I never wanted to get married, but after seeing you I have changed my mind. If you are going to say no, this opportunity [marriage] will never come in my life again’,” she recalls.
She agreed but asked him to speak to her parents. “He gave us two choices: either they [my parents] get us married or he would kidnap me,” Muthulakshmi says. Her parents weren’t happy about the match because Veerappan was then wanted by the police in seven murder cases, but eventually gave in. The two got married six months later, in January 1990. It seems Veerappan was indeed in love with his young wife. When he realised that his infamous green uniform scared her, he began to wear civvies.
Muthulakshmi spent the first three years of her married life with her husband in the forests of Karnataka. “It was not easy, though it was peaceful and healthy,” says Muthulakshmi. She would walk over 25 km every day with Veerappan and his gang to avoid the police and informants. Muthulakshmi claims that during those days she managed to convince Veerappan to quit smuggling and start a new life. “I insisted that he should surrender, but he was afraid that his life would be in danger.” His plan, according to Muthulakshmi, was to sell his large stock of sandalwood, pocket the money and settle far away, maybe somewhere in the north where nobody would recognise him.
But before he could carry out the plan, the police seized the sandalwood stock. Around this time, Muthulakshmi gave birth to a girl, Vidya. When she was seven months old, Muthulakshmi left her with her parents — when she met her next, Vidya was seven.
Veerappan’s writ ran large in the 30-40 villages from Kolathur to Palar in Tamil Nadu, a distance of around 80-90 km. In Muthulakshmi’s account, Veerappan was not the bloodthirsty bandit that the police made him out to be; for her, he was like Robin Hood who threatened government functionaries, through letters or at times by kidnapping them, to make them provide services like water and ration to poor people. The police, of course, tell a different story: Veerappan, they say, was remorseless, cunning and evil. The only people he had a soft corner for were his two daughters, Vidya and Prabha.
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An Oxford English Dictionary lies open on a table in the living room of Muthulakshmi’s house; it is being used by her younger daughter, Prabha, who is doing her graduation in English literature from a college in Mettur. Her mother has big dreams for Prabha; her elder daughter Vidya had married without informing her. Vidya’s bonds with her parents were weak, Muthulakshmi says, because she grew up away from them during her formative years, and so she didn’t hesitate before moving on. Muthulakshmi, who has studied till the eighth standard, says she had dreams of Vidya becoming a doctor or a public servant, but she married Deepak, an unemployed youth.
Like her mother, Prabha speaks softly. While I chat with her mother and grandfather, Prabha gets busy with a notepad, papers and the dictionary. Educating the two girls hasn’t been easy for Muthulakshmi. “My kids never went to one school for long. Almost every year we had to change schools either because the management would ask us to remove our kids or the girls couldn’t handle their classmates,” she says. Muthulakshmi says she too faces jibes and curious looks from bystanders, most of them total strangers, when she goes to the temple or market. “There goes Veerappan’s wife, they say.”
In 1993, Muthulakshmi was taken into custody by the special task force, or STF, set up by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to nab Veerappan. There had been a gunfight. She had given birth to a girl barely a week ago and so couldn’t escape. (The newborn died in the gunfight.) Muthulakshmi claims that she was kept as a bait by STF, which hoped that Veerappan would come to rescue his wife. He never came.
Muthulakshmi attempted suicide by drinking phenyl. She was rushed to the hospital and the phenyl was flushed out. When she was released, a police officer called Tamilselvan arranged a job for her at a textile mill (Vasudeva Textiles) in Coimbatore, where she worked for three years (from 1995 to 1998). Nobody knew who she was. “That was one of the most difficult phases in my life,” she says. “We used to work for almost eight hours, walking from one end of the room to the other. But I could not walk because my legs were broken in the police action. I didn’t speak to anybody, there were no friends and I was not able to understand anybody,” she says. The only solace was Vidya, whom she had brought to live with her.
If Veerappan amassed a lot of wealth, then it’s not visible here. The house is modest. There is a moped in the courtyard and a portable television in the living room, but little else that suggests even a reasonable degree of comfort. Muthulakshmi says there is no hidden horde of cash. “I faced more problems after my husband’s death, than when he was alive.” Muthulakshmi lives off the few fields she cultivates. Some of Veerappan’s old friends chip in now and then. Though she has been acquitted of the charges of aiding Veerappan (five legal cases in Karnataka and one in Tamil Nadu), she still looks uneasy. “Only the court has the right to say whether an accused is really a culprit. My husband was not brought before the law for this. Who knows, if he were, he would have got a chance to explain himself and get acquitted,” she says.
Still Muthulakshmi is looking at ways to support the people who suffered in the police action to nab Veerappan. The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments had announced compensation of Rs 10 crore for about 750 such people. Muthulakshmi claims this money hasn’t been fully disbursed; she is working to ensure that it reaches the intended beneficiaries. She has also formed a group, Malaival Makkal Urimai Iyakkam, to support the tribes in the region which has no educational institutions, healthcare facilities and roads. Is she preparing for a career in politics? “I would like to take this on in my individual capacity,” says Muthulakshmi who contested the panchayat elections five years ago.
Right now, Muthulakshmi has two other cases to fight. One, her elder sister’s arrest on charges of protecting Veerappan and his group. Two, she has approached the court seeking a ban on Attahas, a Kannada movie (and Vana Yudham, its Tamil version), which have portrayed her husband as a villain.
The sun is setting by this time. I take my leave, just in time to catch the next train to Chennai.